There is something about doing “good” work.  Whether one devotes their career to working with the underserved, equality or human rights issues, or one dedicates large blocks of volunteer time to organizations that work on, it is lumped into the “good works” category.  Awards and high praise for those who do this “good work” abound.  There are constant testimonials, award dinners, special events and even “genius” grants for those whose work leaves and impact on our social structure. But most of us never elevate our good work to this level of exaltation and reward.  Most of us try to find that small niche that fits our passions and our capacity and then do the “good” that we can.  As we seek out these opportunities for good work, how do we measure the impact?  This has become an almost overpowering question for the nonprofit sector.  Can we be doing good and not measure its outcomes?  Can we provide services without tracking them?

I remember from my childhood an early TV show called “The Millionaire”.  I loved to watch how this mysterious, wealthy person would anonymously do good by sharing his wealth with others, never asking for recognition and never requiring accountability on how it would be used.  I am probably dating myself with this story (it was a black and white show, before the days of color TV!), but I now wonder if we have lost something in our fervor to prove that what we do, in our good work, makes a difference.

There is a wonderful quote from Albert Einstein that says: Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.  The gist of this is that we live in a time when doing good has been elevated beyond and above a personal sense of satisfaction.  We are bombarded with requests for data and measures that will demonstrate success.  These demands are not just coming from those who fund “good works”, but from those who consume them; from elected officials; from academicians and many, many others.  We seem to be consumed with being able to count things, but not so much with what really counts.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I believe strongly in having measures, outcomes and accountability.  But I also believe in the simple “good work” that happens when we seek uncharted ways of approaching a problem.  I believe that failure can often open doors to new approaches and new ways of thinking.  I believe that if we only use approaches that can be measured and counted, we may lose some valuable options.  I think that adding a “wild card” option in with the tried and true may generate some new ways to approach our difficult issues…and that measurable outcomes will often follow.  There are risks involved in this.  Funders don’t like the unknown and there is reluctance to test new waters without some prior demonstration of success.  But if we did not have pioneers who were willing to jump in before all had been proven, much of what we know today would not exist.

The cost of measuring outcomes and learning from this what works and what does not is high.  The cost of not taking on new strategies to see if they will work is higher.

Carole Levine, Principal

Levine Partners, LLP